Lashings of Fun: The Famous Five (1978 – 1979)
Enid Blyton’s classic books about four adventure-seeking children and their dog come alive in a charming 1970’s TV adaptation.
Such a culturally ingrained series of stories, The Famous Five decked out many a bookshelf of children growing up, and was a source of many delightful tales of mystery, exploration and friendship. These wonderful stories depicted the exploits of the Kirrin children who would foil evil plots hatched by blundering adults, all the while managing to have jolly good fun on whatever adventure they had embarked upon. Who wouldn’t want to drift off with a bedtime story of such captivating young heroes who made anything seem possible?
So what could be more perfect than bringing Enid’s wonderful creation to the television screen?
Pack yourself some Ginger Beer and plenty of sandwiches, and let’s go off on a very famous ride!
(Does Dick’s title card count as an early meme?)
Produced by the now defunct Southern Television, The Famous Five’s adventures were recreated in twenty-six half hours episodes over two series. Unlike the books, where the setting was around post-war 1940’s/50’s, the series was adapted into the 1970’s setting – a contemporary take, at the time. Of course, even with their doing this, it didn’t detract from the original adventures in the slightest. While the late 70’s were clearly a far cry from the world of post war Britain, it was nevertheless an era where children were still fledgling spirits, unconstrained yet by a world that became overly conscious of the dangers beyond their front door. It was when children weren’t drones of an advancing technological age and indulged in their freedom to explore and weren’t afraid to muddy their clothes or graze their knees.
Most people, I assume, have some knowledge about The Famous Five. As a child, I had a number of books about them, though my memory is vague of how many I actually read – if anything, I only recall seriously reading one of the books. However, I did have an alternate experience of The Famous Five through a Commodore 64 video game, which I found at a young age hard to get to grips with, though still found enjoyable. Though I wasn’t an avid fan, the general concept of The Famous Five with its cast of courageous, intelligent young heroes, who didn’t require superpowers to outwit the cocky baddies, and would travel about on their own in such a carefree manner was so endearing, especially for a young mind who could only dream of such wild situations! The Famous Five took you where you wanted to go, and did so with such vivid and beautifully crafted literature.
The late 70’s television series captures the adventurous spirit of The Famous Five and recreate’s Blyton’s characters on screen just as you would imagine them. Julian is the mature, commanding leader of the group, Dick is the cheeky and reliable one, George the stubborn tomboy wanting to prove she is as good as any boy (even wanting to be mistaken for a boy!), and then there is the sweet Anne, a very capable but somewhat reluctant participant of all the mystery solving. And last but not least, is Timmy, their trusty and faithful canine companion who shares a loyal connection with his master, George. Other regular characters include Aunt Fanny, the loving maternal figure always welcoming her niece and nephews with open arms, and Uncle Quentin, a top scientist and workaholic who doesn’t always deal well with the children’s noise and mischief, but does once in a while display a softer side with them. Then there was Rogers the gardener, a character specifically created for the TV series, a bit gruff and not always tolerant of the kids, but is there as a supportive adult when Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin aren’t around for any reason.
It wasn’t too long ago I sat through the entire complete DVD box set, which was actually the first time I’d seen many of the episodes. As a little kid, I’d only managed to see three episodes on VHS. This was during a time when trying to get a hold of further tapes was not so easy, and there was no grand tool like the internet so you could search for that long lost episode you failed to see!
Admittedly, I went into this with huge nostalgia goggles planted firmly on, but from those three episodes as a child, it had always stuck firmly with me and encouraged me even many long years later to watch the series as a whole. And I can proudly say I’m glad I took the time to watch it all; and though I have a much more critical eye these days, I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw.
If one thing sucked me straight in, it was the catchy opening theme! ‘Wherever there’s adventure to be found, just a clue or a secret message brings the Famous Five around …’ – Nothing can get you quite in the mood for mystery solving quite like a rousing, foot-tapping song!
It was a very charming show geared towards young children, though just as accessible and welcoming for adult viewing, too. The episodes were plotted with fairly simple storylines – somewhat campy in their depiction – but always done with such energy and good humour. You could even ignore the hokey acting and script work that cropped up on occasion and simply absorb yourself in the larks and good old family fun.
Episodes ran for approximately 25 minutes in length – some were even given two parts for improved pacing and coverage of the stories they were adapting. With the constrained episode length, it was quite obvious that for single part episodes, they were struggling to adapt the bulk of the adventures into such a short amount of screen time. Stories were trimmed down to an extent that everything happened at a fairly brisk pace, and on occasion, a lot of motivations of the villains and back story to some secondary characters were brushed over. In some cases, things involving the baddies were even quickly resolved off screen, which was pretty disconcerting. The writers’ did what they could to get the most principle aspects of the story on-screen and remove anything of a lesser degree they just didn’t have time for. You’ll probably just have to go read the books if you want the full story!
Even with the trimming down, there were still many good episodes, though there were a couple I found rather dull, mostly because a lot of the premises resembled one and other too much, as well as having interchangeable, one dimensional bad guys.
A couple of episodes I was particularly fond of included Five Go Off To Camp with the mysterious ‘Spook Trains’ and Five Run Away Together – mostly due to the fact it was the first episode I saw as a child – with the enjoyable dynamics of the Five versus the conniving Stick Family.
A lot of the episodes were filmed in the wide outdoors, with lots of shots of lush, rural environments. The scale and vividness of such serene scenes were visually captivating, inviting you out there into the big wide world. They were perfect backdrops for the children to happen upon an awaiting mystery. One of my favourite settings that were used included the wonderful aged cottage that depicted ‘Kirrin Cottage’, a perfect countryside retreat and home base, so to speak, for the children on their holidays – it was so rustic, and depicted good clean living amid wholesome fresh air.
One thing I thought was odd was that they filmed night scenes in daytime, though just added a dark filter over it to make it appear like night. It didn’t always work very well as it made some details in the scenes hard to make out – such a strange decision, though this was a whole other era of television production after all!
A fun fact, the railway station that posed as ‘Kirrin’ station in two episodes was actually the disused Marchwood station in Hampshire that has been closed since 1966. Great to see such a setting put to good use for a different kind of entry and exit point for the Five.
The performances from the actors varied throughout the series. The main Five had some pretty stilted moments, though to credit, actually embodied their characters very well and were able to step up to the plate when necessary. It was more often than not that the poor, wooden acting came from the adults! There was a monumental amount of campiness achieved between the cast, to levels I’d never thought obtainable, but for the type of show it encapsulates, it was completely forgivable!
Do I have a favourite character between the children? Not particularly – they all had their own engaging quirks that made it hard to choose between them. If there is one character that I didn’t always enjoy, it was George – probably a controversial statement, as she is one of the more favoured characters in the franchise. Though to give due recognition, she does have the most distinctive personality of the children. A hot-headed and stubborn tomboy, she could also be fiercely loyal and brave; but at the same time, she had such a possessive nature, always making proclamations about things that belonged to her: ‘My dog, my island, my binoculars, my boat…’ – it was something of a laughing point about how stuck up she was over such things. She spent a fair amount of time being huffy and indignant over such menial things – though it did reflect well in part characterising the somewhat spoilt attitude of George, who seemed like a very lonely only child merely demanding attention. While there were times she showed such great resolve and admirable in the face of danger, her petulance was sometimes just a little too hard to stomach.
Other characters I liked were definitely Aunt Fanny and Uncle Quentin. In Fanny’s case, she was a wonderful sweet figure who always lit up the screen she was in, though was sorely missed in many episodes she didn’t appear. Quentin was a great authority figure who sometimes came into conflict with the Five, though would regularly be there at the end of episodes to shake his head in disbelief or praise the children for besting the baddies!
What I always thought was a funny aspect of the series was the formulaic endings to the majority of episodes. The children somehow managed to trick or evade the villains, and even if a couple of them were captured during a precarious situation, the other kids would manage to get away to alert the authorities. Whatever the circumstance, the police would soon turn up and everything would be resolved all so nice and neatly. Never mind the fact the children had just put themselves through tremendous danger!
On this thought, it makes you wonder why the baddies didn’t just shoot them when they had the chance! Okay, so that wouldn’t really be in the spirit of things… But, you know…
It was sad that there was a lack of Ginger Beer in the series (not one reference at all!), but the heart of The Famous Five was still there nonetheless. Despite its shortcomings, The Famous Five was wonderfully transitioned onto the screen as a 70’s depiction of the classic books. All the whimsy and charm was lovingly recreated through the adventures on the small screen, whether they were sailing off to Kirrin Island or out camping in the beautiful, green countryside. Each character was perfectly cast and depicted, and Timmy was a fantastic protector as well as loving companion, who you just wanted to reach into the screen to scratch behind the ear.
The Famous Five is an enduring saga, a story that can apply itself to any time period just for the sheer admirable qualities of the characters and their mindset. In a way, they are fantastic role models with their respectful nature, intelligence and strength against adversity. I would undoubtedly recommend the books, though for a television adaptation, I would wholeheartedly recommend the 70’s series. There was a version created in the 90’s that was more true to the time period – I didn’t actually enjoy that one so much – but at least you have plenty of choices to get your Famous Five fix!
Images © ITV (Southern Television)/Koch Media
The Famous Five © Enid Blyton